Much as gentrification has dealt a crippling blow to music and the arts in general in this city, a gritty individualistic spirit persists. “Raided all my hangouts, put away my friends, now I’m sitting on a bonfire in a night that never ends,” LJ Murphy intoned ominously as his band the Accomplices played the careening noir blues of his song This Fearful Town the other night after the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin. The nattily attired rocker (black suit, porkpie hat, red tie for Valentine’s Day) embodies everything that’s good about un-trendy rock in this town. With Tommy Hochscheid’s Stax/Volt guitar and Patrick McLellan’s piano firing off savage ripples and rumbles over a swinging rhythm section, Murphy romped through a mix of his signature surreal, blues-infused, urbane urban narratives. They opened with the slinky menace of Another Lesson I Never Learned and encored with Barbed Wire Playpen, a rather gleefully scampering tale about a Wall Street one-percenter with a fondness for the dungeon. In between Murphy chronicled eerily delirious rust belt crowds dancing away their doom to a stripper-fronted jazz band, clueless bridge-and-tunnel happy hour crowds yucking it up, along with several postapocalyptic scenes and would-be stalkers contemplating their next moves or lack thereof. As much as Murphy’s white-knuckle intensity and goodnatured energy onstage are contagious, his songs are all ultimately in the here-and-now, and they don’t paint a pretty picture.
At Salon #13 the previous week, chanteuse Drina Seay aired out some new, torchy, sophisticated country tunes and then joined her brilliant lead guitarist, Homeboy Steve Antonakos, for a set of his own purist, sardonic janglerock and Americana songs, including some pensive tracks from his latest ep. Other highlights of the past couple of salons included angst-fueled Americana rock and southwestern gothic by the Downward Dogs’ Joe Yoga, gorgeously lyrical chamber pop and art-rock by Serena Jost, creepily gleeful murder ballads and jaunty original bluegrass/C&W by Kelley Swindall and mysterious blues-infused narratives (and a pretty hilarious Glimmer Twins interlude) by the Salon’s own Lauraly Grossman.
Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. have a monthly residency at Otto’s and a pretty much monthly, sometimes more than monthly gig at Rodeo Bar. Much as their satire of early 50s pre-rock hillbilly sounds is pretty hilarious – they’d kill on Broadway – their most recent gig on 14th Street was a reminder of just what a good straight-up country band these guys are, never mind the shtick. Michael McMahon’s a hell of a lead guitarist, with a snarling but sophisticated edge – and the band brought munchies, a big basket of snacks for every table. Thanks guys!
Among New York acts, nobody’s bigger in Peru than Chicha Libre. Which on face value seems pretty absurd, until you consider that they’re probably the world’s greatest psychedelic cumbia band. A lot of us take their weekly Monday residency/live rehearsal on their home turf at Barbes for granted, and we shouldn’t – they’ve never sounded more tight or energized, and they’ve been tight and energetic for years. A December show got shut down early because of a bass amp malfunction: bassist Nicholas Cudahy’s pulse is so subtle and simple and hypnotic, and so essential to the band. Too bad, because they had really been on a roll up to that point. A show in in the middle of last month was packed with dancers, and the band fed off the energy, romping through a mix of classic Peruvian covers and originals ranging from keyboardist Josh Camp’s creepy vamp Tres Pasajeros, to frontman Olivier Conan’s cynical, Gainsbourg-esque L’Age D’Or.
Out of print for years, the Mumbo Gumbo album is now available digitally (and streaming at co-frontman Joe Flood’s Bandcamp page). Last month, the band reunited for a one-off cd release show at Rodeo Bar. The crowd was a surreal mix of drunken Baruch kids and fans of Flood and accordionist Rachelle Garniez who’d come out to see them in their old Americana project, possibly for the first time. Word on the street is that the sonic issues that plagued the early part of the show were resolved as it went on. In the beginning, much as it was a pain to hear the band having to jostle with the crowd for volume, it was a lot of fun to be able to catch Garniez doing the enigmatic Swimming Pool Blue and the sly, innuendo-fueled New Dog with some old friends, more rustically and rawly than she usually does them. And Flood was on his game with his violin, and his guitar, and his big voice too.
Indie classical string quartet Ethel – which has undergone some personnel changes in recent months – has a weekly Friday night residency at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can hear them as you walk in. On a dim, rainy evening, listening to the sound rise as you go up the stairs evokes a magical old-world Europe of the mind. To fully appreciate what they’re doing, you have to get closer to the action, i.e. along the rail where they’re playing in the bar space itself. A random, recent misty night found them inviting colleagues from other ensembles and exploring the classical and the baroque as well as the adventurous avant garde sounds which have come to define them. If the idea of the Kronos Quartet intrigues you but all the electronic bells and whistles leave you cold, this group will hit the spot.
Melvin Van Peebles has to be close to eighty now, but he still plays regularly with his psychedelic funk band Laxative, which includes members of Burnt Sugar. One of the final shows at Zebulon before they closed their doors for good saw the mordantly funny indie filmmaker/personality in low-key, smoldering mode, bantering with the crowd and making his way through a sometimes wryly sexy, sometimes corrosive mix of tunes from his cult classic albums from the 70s. As usual, the band behind him – featuring bassist Jared Nickerson and baritone saxophonist Moist Paula Henderson – gave him a dynamically-charged groove to croon over.
Morricone Youth have a singer now. The elegant, darkly torchy presence of Karla Rose Moheno out in front of the cult favorite film soundtrack band has not only transformed their sound but also has opened up a whole different repertoire beyond the already vast Italian film themes that they’ve been mining since they were a mainstay on the Lower East Side about ten years ago. Their most recent show at Otto’s – yeah, this is going back a ways – featured a lot of unfamiliar material, some of it on the jazzy side, some with a lushly psychedelic rock feel. These days, when they’re not in Europe, they’re more likely to be playing a theatre than a rock club, which makes a lot of sense.
And it was good to catch a bit of energetic third-stream jazz group the Trio of Oz at one of those multi-act extravaganzas at the booking agents’ convention last month. Pianist Rachel Z is a force of nature, but she can be plaintive when the song calls for it. Her version of King of Pain far outdid the Police at brooding poignancy.
Much as the recent slate of shows has been a lot of fun, there have been some duds. That enticing, by-invitation-only multi-piano fest in midtown turned out to be a disappointment despite the starpower of the players involved, for lack of solid material: garbage in, garbage out, no matter how many fantastic fingers might be playing it. There was another show on the east side recently that promised to explore the apocalyptic effects of natural disasters: it turned out to be a Euro-jazz band vamping endlessly behind amateurish videos and awkward, stilted poetry. And another semi-recent show featuring a member of a famously creepy indie band turned out to be a lot more indie than creepy, a nonstop barrage of dorkiness from the wannabe bass player/composer whose spastic, sort-of-indie-classical, sort-of-indie-rock stuff was being put on display.